8 Ingenious Ways Animals Outsmart Predators
Not long ago we looked at the most horrifyingly diabolical predators in nature, creatures that had raised murder to an exquisite art.
What we have also found, however, is that they have to be smart for a reason. Some of their prey have come up with tricks to avoid capture that would put a even supervillain to shame.
The Hognose Snake Stages Its Own Murder
The hognose snake is venomous, so you might think that's all the defense it'd need. The problem is it only has small fangs at the back of its mouth, so you'd only have to worry about a hognose bite if it was deep-throating you and we're guessing you gents have already tossed caution to the wind when you're taking that for a run.
To compensate for this cruel twist of design, they have developed a defense strategy that takes "playing possum" to a bizarre, mind-boggling level. These things fake their own murder, and with such detail that they could fool the CSI crew.
Yes, like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, the hognose snake knows when it's opportune to fake being dead. In the animal kingdom, it's typically done because certain predators will avoid carrion, but lots of mammals and birds of prey have no such qualms about dead snakes. It's just that the hognose snake attacks the role with such vigor that no one has the heart to tell it the truth.
It will convulse wildly, flip over on to its back and lie nearly motionless even when prodded. The hognose death-stagger is so overwrought that even Jim Carrey's directorial notes advise dialing it back.
In some cases it accompanies the performance with a lolling tongue and--get this-- will even spew blood from its mouth and anal openings.
It is so dedicated to the role that if reset on to its stomach, it will immediately flip over to its back. What it lacks in an understanding of death it certainly makes up for in commitment.
Even weirder, when finally forced to fight, the hognose snake will imitate a cobra. It'll flatten out the skin on its neck, and even coil and strike (remember, its lack of fangs make striking useless--it's all for show).
We say it's weird because they don't live on the same continent as cobras, aren't directly related to them and there's no fossil evidence that they ever crossed paths. It's imitating behavior it's never seen in person, so we have to assume they just saw a cobra on TV at some point.
Dresser Crabs Wear People Clothes
The dresser crab has two primary missions: to survive long enough to pass along its genome and to be absolutely FABULOUS.
Lots of animals can obscure themselves using pigments and mimicry, but the dresser crab bests them all with its knowledge of accessorizing. As it moves through varied environments, it scans the ground for any objects it can attach to velcro-like patches on its exoskeleton to best match the surroundings.
Should it sense danger--or the opportunity to vamp--it will freeze dead in its tracks and flawlessly, sassily merge into the background.
Other species in the majidae family are known for using hooks in their shells to attach long strands of seaweed for cover. We know what you're thinking: Could we stick one of these in a tank full of jewels and shit and watch them confusedly dress themselves up like drag queens? Hell yes:
Notice in the video how the crab automatically gravitates towards the pearls. It may be somewhat gauche to wear multiple strands in evening wear; but to survive in the desolate landscape of a sunken ballroom, caution must be thrown to the tides.
Dinoflagellates Practice Mutually Assured Destruction
We don't like to criticize dinoflagellates (their fans get vicious in the comments) but their defense mechanism appears to be the worst idea in the world.
Any sharp motion in the vicinity will immediately trigger a near-blinding flash of light that shines through their entire body. In the presence of a plankton-eating creature, this bioluminescence would seem to serve all the survival utility of bringing a glowstick-twirling raver on a big cat safari. So why do it?
The light may well betray their position, but it's also their way of screaming "Eat me!" in the most derogatory sense possible. The thing about predators of dinoflagellates is that they themselves are prey to larger predators, and so on. So the dinoflagellates predator may devour them, but with the sudden flash of light announcing it, the predators have now been illuminated to larger predators in the vicinity.
Even after the dinoflagellate has been consumed, the predator's motion will continue to usher forth bursts of light. For largely transparent creatures like certain shrimp, this is like slapping a road flare on its chest and attaching dinner bells to each foot.
It's a Mutually Assured Destruction scheme that's simultaneously brilliant and dickish.
The Vampire Squid is Terrifying and Lazy
The vampire squid lives way down in the parts of the sea where barely any light can reach, as a creature called a vampire squid would. That's why the black variety of this squid are only visible in our nightmares, and navigate via the terrified screams of approaching fish.
The more common, and almost as horrifying, red vampire squid calls upon defense techniques that are equal parts cunning and bizarre.
First, it pulls the webbing connecting each tentacle over its head, revealing a hood of formidable looking spines. These fleshy protrusions are actually about as imposing as a koosh ball, not unlike the vampires of the Twilight series, but it's a good bluff.
In the poorly lit surroundings this exposed black underbelly also cloaks the squid for a retreat, which it would totally do if hadn't just eaten. It doesn't want to get cramps, you know? So instead of running, it illuminates photophores set behind its eyes and slowly contracts them, giving the illusion of shrinking into the distance.
Let us emphasize that it doesn't actually run away. It is so profoundly lazy that it is already conserving energy for all of the floating it will be doing later. That's like evading a knife-wielding maniac by doing one of those "walking down fake stairs" tricks before curling up and taking a nap behind the couch.
The Hagfish is a Slime Machine
The hagfish isn't so much a fish as a sentient mucus gland. It probably eats and swims too, but their primary function in the ecosystem is pretty much grossing out the other fish.
In response to physical attack or the curious sadism of a lab nerd, the hagfish secretes a microfibrous slime. When this goo is combined with water it expands into a cohesive, gelatinous muck. This is fortunate because fish are known to have contact with water with some frequency.
And the goo is downright amazing. Drop a single hagfish into a fish tank, and in seconds you'll have a tank full of taffy. A few drops of this stuff is sufficient to bind water dozens of times its own volume and, unlike a simple slime, the proteins it contains unravel to give it some tensile strength and durability.
It is custom designed to gum up the gills of any predators whose appetite is stirred by something that looks like a length of intestine basted in petroleum jelly.
This slime not only renders the hagfish nearly impossible to grasp, it prevents the thermal viscosity breakdown more common in fish using standard 10W-30. However, should a predator actually get ahold of the hagfish, it has one more trick left: It can wriggle free of their grasp by contorting its body into an overhand knot and sliding it toward the captive end.
This allows them to muscle against whatever is clutching them and use a little extra hagjuice to slide itself away. At that point, the predator usually realizes it's achieved little more than a mouthful of snot for its effort and swims away to consider the health benefits of vegetarianism.
The Veined Octopus Goes Undercover as a Coconut
Octopi are renowned for their defensive bag of tricks. Some can hide by squeezing into nooks a tenth of their width, even making a beer bottle suitable cover.
Others are expert mimics, morphing their color and appearance to appear foreboding like a seasnake, scorpion fish or... a flounder.
And, of course they have that whole "squirting ink" thing. But the veined octopus trumps all the others at their own game. It will cloak itself with its surroundings by squeezing into shells or any debris it can gather to form a makeshift fortress.
If the octopus can actually get ahold of materials like a coconut shell, it will take its defenses on the road. It will wrap itself in the shell and roll out on the ocean floor like a bunker on wheels. It's like driving a Hummer without looking like a douche.
It has adapted to this defense so well, that it has even dumbfounded Berkeley researchers by demonstrating the first evidence of bipedal movement in octopi.
Yes, it gets around like Squidward from Spongebob.
Sea Cucumbers Puke Their Guts Out Their Butthole
The sea cucumber holds the unenviable position of not only looking like a massive glistening turd, but looking equally as defenseless. When the humans name your species after a vegetable, you can tell you're probably not known for sharp teeth or claws. How does such a seeming affront to natural selection persist? Simple: This turd has skills.
Sure, some sea cucumbers (such as Holothuriidae atra) have defenses like toxic secretions, and others have developed reinforced body walls so that it takes twice as long to chew them to death (yes, it's the overcooked sausage defense).
But why bother with traditional defenses when you can vomit your lungs out of your ass?
More precisely, some sea cucumbers have white structures called cuverian tubules attached to a portion of their respiratory tree. When perturbed, the sea cucumber expels these adhesive threads out of its anus.
It provides a tender morsel for the predator to focus on instead of them. While it's busy chewing on its guts, the cucumber floats away. It's akin to a terrified cow spontaneously crapping out a filet mignon.
This seems a lot less insane from the sea cucumber's point of view; it can regenerate all those parts so it's no real loss.
Then again, even if you could regenerate a lung, it still seems like it'd hurt like hell to expel one from your ass every time there was an emergency. Is there a more fucked-up form of defense in all of nature?
The Horned Lizard... Eh, We Don't Want to Ruin the Surprise
Let's say you were chasing a guy. Like maybe he stole your laptop or something.
He's unarmed and you've backed him into a corner. What is the one thing he can do that would completely take your mind off the laptop so badly that he could escape amid your confusion?
If you said "fire a massive torrent of his own blood out of his eyeballs so hard it paints the alley red," then you should seek some kind of counseling. That is not a thing that a rational person thinks. But at least you know you're not the first to come up with the idea.
The horned lizard, when threatened, actually constricts blood flow to the head, building up pressure in the small vessels inside its eyes. At the right moment, they will forcibly rupture those vessels and propel a jet of blood up to five feet away. They can do this with surprising accuracy, a trait that its cousin, the "Bleeds-Like-A-Sprinkler-Head Lizard," sadly didn't develop until chronic anemia claimed the lot of them.
The purpose is not to make the predator stop and say, "Shit, did I just see that?" because apparently animals aren't as prone to such thoughts. No, the idea is that the blood is supposedly foul tasting to canine and feline predators.
This trait is akin to the "I'm going to lick my Lunchables so nobody steals it" defense you used back in grade school. Just with, you know, more blood-crying.
Have an idea for an article? Think you're funny? Just go here and sign up. No experience necessary.
And check out some more (lethal) animal defenses, in The 6 Deadliest Creatures (That Can Fit In Your Shoe). Or find out about some ridiculous ways humans defend themselves, in The 13 Most Irresponsible Self Defense Gadgets Money Can Buy.
And stop by our Top Picks to see new columnist, Cody, try to impress us by attempting to shoot blood out of his eyes.
And don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter where you can find out how to tame your own horned lizard. (Notice: This is not at all true.)